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By Jay Cost

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Fred '08, RIP

The poor guy never had a chance.

He was caught in the Catch-22 that has bedeviled so many presidential candidates in the modern era. He was right on all the issues - but he could not get anybody to vote for him.

They won't vote for you because they don't see you as viable, his advisers told him. So, he asked, how do I appear viable? Simple, they explained, get people to vote for you.

I am speaking, of course, about Duncan Hunter.

Fred Thompson's candidacy is a completely different matter. Fred landed in the same Catch-22 that plagued Hunter (and Biden and Dodd and Richardson) - but he was the only one of the bunch who put himself in that spot.

Fred had two great angles on the Republican nomination. This is really rare. Most candidates do not even have one. Fred actually had two.

First, he hit every item on the conservative checklist - without contortions. In this year's Republican field - with Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, and Romney - this was a boon. Fred was no apostate. He was the "consistent conservative."

Second, he pulled off a great coup in the late summer. This year's frontrunning candidates thought that, to get enough cash to compete, they had to begin campaigning in January of last year. They had to hold rallies, release endless position statements, and help the media perpetuate the fiction that they were actually persuading "undecided" voters. Donors, you see, have come to expect candidates to entertain them with the trappings of a campaign, even if there was no real core to it all.

But Fred found a way around this inanity. He correctly figured that if he was the last candidate to enter the campaign - he would garner so much instant attention that he could compete as if he had been campaigning for a year.

This is the sort of "cheating" that makes a rat choice guy weak in the knees. To appreciate just how clever this was, consider this analogy. These days, telephone companies offer unlimited packages - you pay a flat fee and you call as much as you want. Suppose that you know that all of your friends and family had these packages - what is the rational thing to do? Get the cheapest plan you can, and let your friends call you! Fred did something like this. The endless campaigning of all his competitors created an environment that would be conducive for a late entrant to steal the limelight. His competitors created it with their time and money. Fred, by coming in late, could reap all of the rewards without paying the cost.

I was mightily impressed by this move. I still am.

All in all, this was a great place to be. Fred was so well positioned when he entered the race that Romney took a shot at him in his first debate: "[The series of debates is] a lot like 'Law and Order,' Senator. It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end." Congrats, Fred. When Romney hits you - you've made the big time.

So what happened? Fred squandered this incredible opportunity. Lackluster speeches, lackluster debate performances, lackluster campaign stops. We saw it happen in slow motion through the fall - the drip-drip-drip of stories about him half-assing his campaign appearances corresponded with his plummeting poll positions. Apparently, Fred just doesn't like to campaign - and the voters took notice. Forget the hyper-kinetic campaign of 2008, where candidates make endless pleas for votes. Fred probably would have disliked McKinley's front porch campaign of 1896. "What...another group of people are out front? Give me a break!"

Personally, I don't hold this against him. Campaigning seems like it would be a drudgery, doesn't it? Watching C-SPAN on the weekends has been instructive for me. They show unedited feeds of campaign speeches, and the glad-handing that follows. I would not want to do what those candidates do. They give the same speech day in and day out. They facilitate the traveling press corps - a pack of jackals who would delight in tearing them to shreds. They talk endlessly with voters, which I wager is more of a chore than it might first appear. Americans are mind-bogglingly opinionated when it comes to politics. We are convinced of the veracity and rectitude of our preferences, and we have no problem giving others an earful of our consequential utterings. Especially candidates. It's our right, damnit - and we have no bones about exercising it.

Fred obviously had no taste for any this. So, he half-assed it. He didn't campaign in a new way, via new media and all that. Instead, he campaigned the old way, but did a lousy job by it. Eventually, we all caught on. And his numbers dropped. And dropped. And dropped.

And one day late last year, he realized that voters no longer saw him as viable. They agreed with him on the issues, for sure - but they weren't going to vote for him. He went from frontrunner to another victim of the Catch-22! He responded by campaigning non-stop - but by then, he was already in that horrible circle. He couldn't win over voters because they thought he couldn't win over voters. That is how a man of his conservative bona fides could meet his end in South Carolina.

Or as an astute emailer put it: "I was a Thompson supporter. Unfortunately, I supported him more than he did."

All in all, I think Fred embarrassed himself a little bit. Not by running and losing. Lots of people run for the presidency, lose the race, and retain their reputation. But his decision to run was ill-advised. He did not have it in him - and he wrongly thought he did.

Final point. While many things are possible in politics - I think it is extremely unlikely that Fred will be chosen as a vice-presidential nominee. Can the Republican nominee be certain that Fred will do what it takes to win? Of course not. Sure, Fred could help bring the party together. But lots of people can do that from a vice-presidential spot. So, why take the risk?

-Jay Cost